POLITICS

Obama makes case for democracy directly to Cuban people: 'We are in a new era'

  • United States President Barack Obama waves after speaking at the Grand Theater of Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 22, 2016.  Obama started his speech by pledging that the U.S. will "do whatever is necessary" to help Belgium bring to justice those who carried out today's terrorist attacks and went on to urge Cubans to look to the future with hope, casting his historic visit as a moment to "bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas." (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

    United States President Barack Obama waves after speaking at the Grand Theater of Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Obama started his speech by pledging that the U.S. will "do whatever is necessary" to help Belgium bring to justice those who carried out today's terrorist attacks and went on to urge Cubans to look to the future with hope, casting his historic visit as a moment to "bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas." (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

  • President Obama speaks at El Gran Teatro de Havana, Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Havana, Cuba.

    President Obama speaks at El Gran Teatro de Havana, Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Havana, Cuba.  (ap)

President Barack Obama addressed the Cuban people in a much-anticipated televised speech in the Communist country, and his message was one of reconciliation, and strongly pro-democracy.

“The starting ideals of any revolution, American or Cuban,” he said, “find their truest expression in democracies.”

Obama on Tuesday urged Cubans to look to the future with hope, casting his historic visit as a moment to "bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas."

Obama's address was sprinkled with Spanish phrases, and it opened a whirlwind final day on the island that includes a meeting with Cuban dissidents and attendance at a baseball game featuring the country's beloved national team — events made possible by the beginning of normalization of U.S. and Cuban relations 15 months ago.

"Havana is only 90 miles from Florida, but to get here we had to travel a great distance," Obama said during his address at Havana's Grand Theater.

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Despite the enthusiasm in both the U.S. and Cuba about the new relationship between the former foes, Obama acknowledged the deep differences that persist, including on human rights and democracy. With Cuban President Raúl Castro looking on from a balcony, he called for citizens to be able to "speak their minds without fear" and pick their leaders in free and fair elections.

“The future of Cuba has to be in the hands of the Cuban people,” Obama said in Spanish.

The president was cheered enthusiastically when he reiterated his call for the U.S. Congress to lift the economic embargo on Cuba, calling it an "outdated burden on the Cuban people."

"We are in a new era," he said, adding that it's time to "leave behind the ideological battles of the past."

The embargo is loathed on the island. During a joint appearance with Obama on Monday, Castro called it "the most important obstacle" to Cuba's economic growth."

He also asked Cubans on the island to remember that Cuban-Americans in the U.S. are their brothers.

“Many of them still consider this their home. That’s why their passions are so strong,” Obama said. “For all the politics, people are people, and Cubans are Cubans.”

As Obama pushed for democracy in Cuba, he made clear that political change rarely comes easily, pointing to America's own turbulent history. But he held up the current presidential election in the U.S. as an example of how progress can be made over time.

"Just stop and consider this fact about the American campaign that's taking place right now," he said. "You have two Cuban-Americans in the Republican Party running against the legacy of a black man who is president while arguing that they're the best person to beat the Democratic nominee, who will either be a woman or a democratic socialist."

Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both of Cuban descent, have sought the GOP nomination, though Rubio ended his campaign earlier this month. 

Obama's last day in Cuba was shadowed by the horrific attacks in Brussels, where scores of people were killed in explosions at the airport and a metro station. The president opened his remarks by vowing to do "whatever is necessary" to support Belgium.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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